An Academic Audiography

I sat down last Sunday to brainstorm ideas for this assignment and found myself distracted by the chatter in the hallway, the endless opening and closing of doors, a bass thumping somewhere beneath me and the remarkably loud busses periodically passing by. Frustrated by my lack of focus on things that required my attention, I plugged in my iPod and proceeded to play my favorite playlist, a queer collection of country, hip hop, rock and show tunes. This worked for a few minutes, until the words flowing from the speakers became more important than the words trickling onto the page. I switched to my most played Pandora Radio station, Classical Piano Radio. As I sat and stared at a half filled page of useless notes and quotes, I noticed the soft, rhythmic click-clack click-clack of the pen in my hand and realized I was involuntarily creating the noise. This was a sound that punctuated every part of my academic life. Anytime there was a pen in my hand, be it in a lecture hall, study room or at my desk, I was clicking it. I wondered what other noises must characterize collegiate education for me; and so began the auditory analysis of Alex’s academic adventures.

In order to find what sounds define my learning experience, I recoded ten separate noises that I hear or produce at least a few times every week, starting with my main motivator, the sweet symphonic sound of my coffee machine, and proceeding with the sounds of classes, coursework and concentration. In order to ensure that my recordings were organic, I captured clips of ten or fifteen minutes and extracted short demos to summarize the entire sound. The demos are in roughly chronological order between two days and the distinguished pen click can be heard in almost all of them.


While only captured in a few of my clips*, I often use music or radio to hone in my concentration, especially when working on math homework, or taking my first set of notes on a reading (I copy them in silence later). I decided to further investigate specifically why having background noise helps me focus in certain situations. That practice contrasts Dr. Seth Horowitz analysis of the effect of technology on our ability to listen. Rather than “losing [the skill of listening] in a world of digital distraction,” I’m gaining the ability to stifle unimportant ambient noise through the use of music [1]. In fact, I view my employment of audio technology as a form of concentration and direction of attention rather than a distraction. Michel Chion sheds some light on why I need a distraction like classical music in his differentiation of three modes of listening. The most common is causal listening which “consists of listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause” [2]. Therefore, the laughter in the hall, for example, lets me know something amusing has happened, and makes me want to find out what it was. If I chose to block out those noises with lyrical music I begin to employ semantic listening “which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message” [3]. My brain automatically recognizes the lyrics as something I should listen to, especially since I know the songs well, and I can no longer devote my attention to the task in front of me. Classical music is the best way to solve all of the previously mentioned issues since I am not a student of music and can therefore listen without involuntarily thinking about the noise. It almost allows me to “turn-off” my sense of hearing.

Moving beyond my use of music while doing homework, these two modes are very applicable to the other sounds of my academic life. In a lecture it is important interpret the information being translated by language through semantic listening (especially if your professors have accents), whereas at my work study job, causal listening lets me know if they machines are working properly or if something is at a risk of breaking. Now that I know what aurally characterizes my academic life, I can use it to my benefit.


*I had situational constraints when trying to record some of my sounds as I commonly have to use headphones in my room and in the study rooms so I am not bothering others.

Works Cited

[1] Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening. (New York: The New York Times, 2012), 2.

[2] Chion, Michael, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 48.

[3] Ibid. 50.